FOXCast: Robert Jordan on Preserving Family Legacies

Date: Apr 22 2019

KC Forsythe, Marketing Manager, Video & Content, Family Office Exchange

In this episode of FOXCast, our guest is Robert Jordan, Founder and CEO of Video Family Biographies, part of Jordan & Jordan Communications.

Robert Jordan is a retired Reporter/Anchor for WGN TV-Chicago. As a FOX Advisor Member, he works with families by preserving their histories and family legacies through feature-length video productions.

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KC: Can you start by walking me through how you came to this idea for your production company?  
Robert Jordan: Well, being a journalist and working in television, it was just a natural sort of progression of what I do. Over the years, we've done many documentary-style productions, so I'm familiar with that kind of work. And about 15 years ago, well, I've had my own company for about 25 years, and we were producing programming for Tribune, National Geographic, and the Hallmark Channel. But, a friend of the family died, and I was out of town at the time. When I got back, I called one of her sons and he said, “you know what, we're at Mom's house right now. Why don't you come over?" She had five adult children and when I got there, they were all sitting around on the floor with just photographs, pictures just all over the place. So, we were talking about her and her life and so forth, and I got this idea. And I asked if I could just gather up several of the pictures, take them with me, and that I'd get them back. They said, “what do you want pictures for?” And I said, “ah, you'll see.” So, I took about 40 or 50 pictures with me took them into the newsroom, and on a weekend, wrote up a little 4-or-5-minute story about her life. I worked with one of our editors who scanned in the photographs and added music, and we burned them this little story. And what they didn't realize was, I had a cassette of her singing a lullaby acapella to one of the kids as an infant and I ended it with that. So, I passed out copies to all of the children and they said it was the greatest gift they'd ever had.  
KC: Oh, I bet that was so special.  
RJ: It was! And I couldn't believe it—I mean, they were just knocked over.  
And so, I got to thinking about this idea of family stories and then biographies, and histories and then legacy work. So, I didn't know how to begin, and I didn't know how to price them, and all of that. But I knew I wanted to do them documentary style to include many different people in telling the story. Not just the family members, but their friends and associates and business partners, and religious advisors, and attorneys. And so, I knew that would be an endeavor that would take a lot of time—and it ended up that we usually spend between 4 to 6 months in the production of one of the videos. 

"Family members have legacy stories within the family that they can relate, and anecdotes. And all of this information is precious that should be preserved."

So, I'm on the board of the shed aquarium and I talked with a trustee there who was a friend of mine whose family had started Northern Trust, and he put me in touch with someone. And they at the time, and still do, have a gathering of ultra-high net worth families in Naples, Florida in February. So, I was invited to that to be a speaker. And I came away with 3 commissions and that's how it worked. Then I joined FOX and that was about 13 or 14 years ago and it's all been history since then.  
KC: So, it was really just seeing the reactions of family members to that little piece that you put together?  
RJ: Yes, that little short 5-minute story. And the videos we produce now are 90 minutes in length. So, they're much longer and much more involved. But that was how it began.

I had no idea that some of these multi-generational family stories would be so compelling. And, what we try to do is, not only talk about the successes of the family, but the tough times that grandma and grandpa had in starting the business, and in working together, and being creative and tough. And, what did they stress? So, we look at also family values and principles. We break them up into chapters in the 90 minutes. We’ll have a chapter on the back-story and look at the different elements of the family progression. But we also want to talk about these tough times—and many of the stories are depression-era struggles that they overcame and had handshake agreements with friends and competitors who ended up standing by them, and they're just remarkable stories. 
By working with FOX, I would meet people at Forums and so forth, and then of course, had a profile on the FOX website. But I began to meet people, and everyone would say, “Oh, that's such a wonderful idea.” And if they were advisors, they would take the word back to family members, or if they were in family offices, and that's how word began to spread.  
KC: And from even my own experience, speaking with FOX families, having a document of family values and family history is so important for keeping the family together and keeping the family successful into the next generation. 

RJ: It is. It really is. You know, we have worked with families in all stages of development. There aren't many families that make it to G5 and that sort of thing, but we do have a few families. Right now, we just finished with one where G5 is in college. So that means that, of course, G1 and 2 were not here. But that didn't stop us from telling the story. Because what we’ll do is, we’ll go back as far as we can with photographs and that kind of information, but also, family members have legacy stories within the family that they can relate, and anecdotes. And all of this information is precious that should be preserved. So, will ask them about that. And then, we’ll go back and find the oldest living friends, and business associates, and people who can also add/color stories to the lives of grandma and grandpa. And so, if they're not here we can still, through research and talking with others, still tell their story.  

We can use genealogists and others to help us build a history. I brought in a young man from Abbot Downing in New York who is now working with us. And we have other genealogists who he can refer to, and so, it helps us go back and dig up the records of family members. And then, using old photographs, rebuild those lives.  
KC: That’s so cool. I mean, it must be just the most interesting work!  
RJ: It is. I end up falling in love with all of these families because they are such neat people; and they take you into their confidence and trust you with their information. And so, we spend time with them in delicately telling their stories. And, sometimes they’ll be apprehensive if there have been remarriages and divorces, and that sort of thing.  

KC: What do you say to them?  
RJ: On several occasions, I've had the patriarch say, “well, you know, I don't know if I want my first wife in it.”  
And I'll say, “you know, I don't think that's a good idea. This is the mother of your children. We need to have her in the story. We'll treat it briefly, we won't dwell on it, but let us talk about her gently and carefully. And we'll move on.”  
We've had those cases, and the patriarch will say, “you know you were right. I'm so happy we put her in, because that's an integral part of the story.”  
KC: So, you encourage them to get the whole picture, no matter what it is.  
RJ: I do, absolutely, because honesty is so important and many times, we have people wanting to do “revisionist history.” I will try to encourage them to realize that this is going to be part of the family record and you want to be as honest and truthful as you can. You know, maybe grandpa was a horse trader and then, his brother stole horses—we don’t know, he was a rustler. But if that’s the case, then let's talk about that, you know? And how that may have played a role in the family, and that sort of thing.  

So today, we find that families are less likely to want to augment the story or augment the truth, should I say. They’re more likely to want to make sure that it's as accurate as possible. 
KC: And from your experience, how have you seen families using this, you know? Why is it so important to tell that story to the next generation? 
RJ: The reason we try to keep them at 90 minutes is that we hope that they will, at least, replay it once a year at the annual family meeting. And by breaking the productions up into chapters, they can easily go in and watch the chapter that they want (they don't have to sit through the 90 minutes). And 90 minutes isn't very long because, when you break them up into chapters, each chapter ends up being maybe 5 or 6 minutes. So, it moves along quickly and we can pack a lot in. And we may do interviews with 15 or 20 people. And I transcribe all of the sound bites. And so, we're able to sprinkle those all along the course of the production. And it really helps to let people talk about specific areas that are important to them.  

"Sit down with the oldest family member you can and ask them, 'what can you tell me about your grandparents?'"

So, it allows families to begin thinking about legacy work which is so important. We all think, “yeah, I'll get around to it.” But you never know when you may need to or when that family member may become incapacitated. And we've had so many stories over the years, where we have spoken with families at conferences and they've said, “oh yeah Bob, I'm going to get in touch with you.” And, never do. And then I'll see them later and they'll say, “you know what? Mom died and I'm so sorry I didn't get in touch with you.”  
You know, I'll tell them then, “I'm so sorry to hear that but it doesn't mean that we can't still tell her story and your dad’s, and the rest of the family members.”  
And then when they realize that, then sometimes they'll say, “Oh, OK. Well, gee you know, let's try to do that. 

KC: That's really important to know.   

RJ: Yeah, it is it is. I mean, just because a family member has become incapacitated—and many times, with Alzheimer's or other diseases, family members then see the loss of mental capacity of a loved one. And when they see just forgetfulness of short-term things, then it becomes really apparent—what's going to happen to all those long-term memories that go back about the family and the history? And those things can be lost forever.  

"I think about the thousands of questions I have for him today that I never got to ask."

I think in terms of my mother; I was lucky enough to go to Atlanta, where I grew up, and go to mom's house. My mother was a collector. She began collecting African art before it was the vogue and went to Africa 22 times in the ‘40s and ‘50s and had a wonderful collection—many museum-quality pieces. And I took my first video camera and went home, and she took me through the house, and she was showing the pieces, and would add-in to help with provenance. Because, some of these—she always insisted that her pieces be used in ceremonies. She detested what she called “airport art,” and she wanted actual pieces that had been used. So, there were some wonderful stories behind some of the pieces that she had collected. And so, while I was shooting mom there in the foyer, my father walked in. And I just turned around and said, “hi dad,” and didn't point the camera at him, thinking, “I'll get him later.” And he had a meeting that night. The next night, I was busy and that trip to Atlanta, I missed him. And the next few trips, I forgot to bring my camera. And then my father died, and I never got him on video. And I think about the thousands of questions I have for him today that I never got to ask. And you know, I think about that, and at least I have my mother. So, my brother and I cherish that tape that we have of her.

But that's what happens with so many families. They put it off and then something happens, and it's gone forever.

KC: Right, so don't put it off!  
RJ: Correct. Correct.  
No, it seems like an extremely important thing for anybody to have.  
RJ: It is. And I tell people today, “don't just come to me.” You know, you have a video camera on the phone in your pocket.  
But this is the thing to do: Sit down with the oldest family member you can and ask them, "what can you tell me about your grandparents?" Because most of us know something about our grandparents. Maybe not our great-grandparents, but we mostly do remember our grandparents or have heard stories about them. So, if you do that with your oldest living family member, you going to be going back a long way, and that can be helpful. Put it on your cell phone, then years from now or whenever, you can transfer it.  
KC: You can do something with it.  
RJ: That's right, at least you have it. And then, transfer that to a flash drive and label it. By all means, label it. I’ll say that again: label it. Because, in too many boxes—and I have some at home too—there are flash drives that aren't labeled, and disks and things, and you wonder, “what's on that?” And people don't want to take the time to pop it into a machine and screen it to see what’s there. And it they get thrown out and it’s usually important material.  
I was sent to the basement of a family one time, just to go through some boxes, and I came across this 16-millimeter film reel. And I thought, “someone wanted to save this, so I wonder . . . it must be important.” So, I took it to the company that I use for digitizing film. And there was the 90-year-old patriarch when he was a young man, working in a factory. So, when I told their story, the kids and grandkids had never seen them. And they were just so thrilled to see grandpa as a teenager.  
And we have, many times, been able to uncover film. Because family members will have a box, and when they start going through things, they'll say, “Oh gee, look what I found!” 
KC: So, they’ll hand that box over to you and say, “what can you find in here?” 
RJ: That’s right. Yeah.  

I'll tell you what happens is, once the family decides to do it, once they pull the trigger, then everybody kind of gets involved, because they hear about it. “Oh, did you know that sis has hired a video biographer and they’re putting this together? They asked us to go through the box of pictures.” Then, people are motivated to do that.  
KC: And I'm sure it's so fun for them.  
RJ: It is. It is. You end up spending more time. Once they empty out that box, turn it over on the table, and start looking at the pictures, they bring back memories—they stimulate memories. And that's what happens with the videos as well; when you sit there and watch them, it brings back so many warm, fuzzy memories of times, because video is one more step, as opposed to the still photo. When you see people moving and hear their voices, there are more senses involved and it brings more things out.  
So, we ask them to please go through them, label them, and date them if they can.  
KC: That’s a great exercise.  
RJ: Yeah, it's a great exercise, and that's the only hard work the family has to do. And that’s a fun thing. And so, you know, getting them to do that, though, is . . . But once they do it, they get involved, and everybody starts emailing us, “how's it coming? When do we get to see it?”  
KC: They get excited about it.   
RJ: They really do. 
KC: That’s so cool. Can you just say how somebody could contact you if they wanted to learn more?  
RJ: Sure, our website is (with an “s”) Or you can just Google me: Robert Jordan. There is another Robert Jordan, the author who did some other books, but put down WGN.  

KC: Yeah, Robert Jordan Chicago.  
RJ: And you’ll find me that way and it's real easy. I tell people, I'm easy to find.  
KC: It really is.  
RJ: Or through FOX.  
KC: You can always contact us at or is our website and Robert Jordan is on our website. Thank you so much, this has been really fun.